For over 5000 years, people have brought together flour and water, waited for the mixture to ferment and used the resulting gases as leavening to make dough rise. A sourdough loaf has the gravitas of an ancient oak with the flavour depth of aged bourbon. Over time, its conserved culture matures like a good red, but it never spoils. The process of making sourdough represents a centuries old technology of preserving yeast and bacteria for long periods of time. With its sharp acidulated tang brought out by lactobacilli and thick, chewy texture, sourdough presents a complex and hearty eating alternative to the mass produced bread so prevalent in our daily diets.
We recently travelled to the village of Chipping Sodbury to converse with Tom Herbert of Hobbs House Bakery about the process he goes through when making sourdough. From the age of four Tom Herbert has been making bread. Flour is in his blood. When he talks about breadmaking, and the heat and energy that drew him to work for the family bakery, his rugged features take on a boyish glee. Late in the morning, his dad Trevor joined us to add his opinion to the conversation. It was interesting to see father and son standing together, a passionate glint in their eyes, discussing the key steps to making a good sour dough loaf.
Tell us about your first experience of bread making – when did you realise that you wanted to be a baker? what captured your imagination?
Bread is in my genes. I’m a 5th generation baker and I grew up above the family bakery in Chipping Sodbury. I have early memories of my dad and uncles working downstairs, doing something that seemed really fun. The bakery was intensely hot and noisy; the place was filled with the banging of tins, Bruce Springsteen and Roxy music blared out of a ghettoblaster and there were big puffs of flour everywhere. As a young boy I found that palpable energy and heat exciting.
I think my first job was jamming doughnuts. I was only four years old and my job was to take these hot buns out of the fryer and stick them on a spike and then pump them full of jam. Then you chuck them in a tray full of sugar. If I did a good job then I was allowed to keep and eat the last one.
The other thing that attracted me was the cyclical nature of baking. Over the course of the day, you see the whole process from start to finish. You produce bread out of simple ingredients; within the same day you see it go out on the shelves and people queuing for it. If all goes well then the produce is sold providing an immense feeling of satisfaction. You aren’t a cog in a wheel. Bread making is an art. You are continually fine tuning what you do. At the heart of baking lies a daily quest for perfection.
Can you walk us through the process of making a sourdough loaf.
There are two parts to the sourdough making process. Firstly, there is the culture, which needs refreshing and keeping alive and then there is the loaf itself. Our organic dark rye culture is 58 years old. To begin with we mix flour and water in equal quantities and place it in a warm environment that provides the ideal conditions for the air born yeasts to colonise.
When making a sourdough initially weigh out flour, water and salt and add it to the culture. It is then then kneaded thoroughly by hand for fifteen minutes or by machine for twelve. As this happens the gluten in the dough is developed and the mixture becomes elastic and stretchy. The dough rises as the wild yeast culture gives off Co2.
Having made the dough and got it smooth, elastic and vital we put it into a bowl and cover it for a few hours. During this period it develops and becomes even more complex in flavour. Once it is ready we then weigh and scale it into pieces which are covered in flour and placed in Birchwood proving baskets. These are breathable, which stops the dough sticking and helps it hold its shape.
Once the loaves have risen, they go into a hot oven and the yeast that has been lying dormant for years sparks to life. We call this moment ‘oven spring’ as the dough rapidly expands and eventually splits into a vital and crusty form. A good sourdough loaf will have a lot of interest on the outside. The sides will be blistered from acidity of the sourdough and the crust will be dark, regal and honey coloured. Once the loaf has cooled down its ready to ship out to our customers. The crust keeps the sourdough moist and fresh for up to a week.
Making sourdough is a strikingly physical process. For me as young man with a huge amount of enthusiasm I loved the energy of the bakery. We are shaped by what we do. If you sit at computer all day you end up slouching and sagging. If you’re in the bakery – a huge amount of demands are put on your body.
The thing that defines us as a bakery and sets us apart from commercial, mass-produced bread making is the human factor. Every loaf is hand made, so that we can guarantee quality and a beautiful form and finish.
Why is sourdough so special?
Sourdough is special because of its simplicity. Flour, water and some salt. That is all you need to make a sourdough loaf. Making it is an ancient process. It reminds me of sitting round a campfire, where people open up and share truths. A sourdough loaf has the ability to bring people together, not only in the making but the sharing. Tearing apart that thick crust is a sacred, primal process.